Daniel Garber talks with Sean Garrity and Jonas Chernick about their new film Borealis

Posted in Canada, Coming of Age, Cultural Mining, Drama, Gambling, Movies, Organized Crime, Rural, Winnipeg by CulturalMining.com on April 1, 2016

Sean Garrity, Borealis, Photo © 2016 Cultural MiningHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Trouble is brewing in Winnipeg. Jonah (Jonas Chernick) is a compulsive gambler – he can’t pass a card table without placing a bet. He’s in debt up to his neck to a bookie named Tubbie. Jonah is also a relentless liar — even his girlfriend doesn’t know why he needs 10,000 bucks, stat. And when the doctor tells him his estranged, teenaged daughter Aurora (Joey King) is about to go blind he keeps his cards close to his chest and doesn’t tell her. He packs up his car and vows to showBorealis_Jonas Chernick Aurora the northern lights in far-off Churchill, Manitoba. But will she see Aurora Borealis before she goes blind… or before the bookies catch up to them?

Borealis is a new feature now playing at the Canadian Film Fest and opening next Friday in Toronto. It’s a buddy pic, a road movie, a coming-of-age drama and a new look at the far edges of Borealis_-_Additional_Still_1Manitoba. It’s funny, surprising and calmly beautiful. It’s made by two long-time Winnipeg collaborators: award-winning director Sean Garrity and the equally notable actor/writer Jonas Chernick. I spoke to Sean in studio at CIUT, and to Jason (on set) by phone. We talk about road movies, gambling, romance, Sean’s hometown, travelling, card games, Churchill, cold weather, polar bears, Joey King, Bruce McDonald, Paper Moon… and more!

Sean Garrity won the DGC Ontario Best Director award for Borealis at the Canadian Film Fest.

Divided personalities. Movies reviewed: Al Purdy Was Here, Legend, I Smile Back

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, Biopic, Canadian Literature, Cultural Mining, drugs, Mental Illness, Movies, Organized Crime, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on December 4, 2015

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

People want their friends to be consistent, reliable, regular. But personalities don’t always work this way. This week I’m looking at three movies about people with shifting lives and divided personalities. There’s a US drama about a drug-addicted, bipolar stay-at-home mom; a British biopic about identical twin gangsters, and a Canadian documentary about a poet with a second life.

Purdy-at-typewriterAl Purdy Was Here
Dir: Brian Johnson

Literature once ruled Canadian culture, with poetry at the top of the CanLit heap. Dudek, Layton, Cohen, Atwood, Bowering, MacEwan, Borson… But things change, and names get lost. This documentary looks at one of those poets, a man named Al Purdy. Have you heard of him? There’s a statue of him in Queen’s Park, about 100 metres away from here.

Purdy is born in small-town Ontario and drops out of school. He joins the Air Force, works with dynamite, and rides the rails all the way to Vancouver. In the 1950s he survives on UI and roadkill. AL+&+friends+at+the+A-FramePicture a bigger-than-life man in loud plaid pants with a foghorn voice. He’s imposing, obnoxious, and happiest talking loudly with a beer stubby in his hand. He makes his mark in Montreal among the better-educated English poets, depending on his prose poetry and rough working-class persona to pull him through. But what became of him?

This movie fills in the blanks. It uses amazing old snapshots, recordings and CBC footage, chapbooks, memorial concerts and twitter feeds to memorialize Al Purdy. It concentrates on the A-frame he built by hand with poet Milton Acorn. The house falls into disrepair so a bunch of writers and musicians get together to physically fix it up. The movie also uncovers the fact it was his wife’s work and salary that let him live the life of a poet. And some skeletons in the closet of another forgotten life. For example it was his wife’s income that let him live as a poet. This movie brings musicians and poets together again, and brings Al Purdy’s poetry back to life.

LegendLegend
Wri/Dir: Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential)

Reggie and Ronnie Kray (both played by Tom Hardy) are gangsters in London’s Bethnal Green, in the 1960s. They make their money through extortion and gunrunning. They are well known to the police, but they still go on with their work with impunity. They’re also identical twins: they may look the same, but their personalities are night and day.

Reggie is popular with the ladies, a real charmer, while Ronnie prefers sex with guys. Reg is the shrewd businessman while Ronnie is more of the brawler. Reggie can hold his own in a fight, but Ronnie’s the really scary one, the loose cannon, ready to explode at any moment, guns ablazing.

Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, the movie begins with him locked away in a high-security Legendhospital for the criminally insane. Reggie strongarms a psychiatrist to declare his brother sane but the doctor puts it on Reggie to make sure Ronnie always takes his meds. (He doesn’t)

One day Reggie meets Frances (Emily Browning) the younger sister of one of his drivers. She’s 16, a petite, beautiful wide-eyed ingénue. They share a lemon sherbet candy, and bam! they fall in love. (She serves as the movie’s narrator). She likes everything about him… except the gangster stuff. And his brother. But Reg courts her relentlessly, even climbing up a drainpipe to her second story window to avoid her mum’s disapproving glances.

Ronnie, meanwhile, is pursuing his own interests: building a mythical utopian city in far-off Africa. And hanging out with his two boyfriends.

02They join forces with Payne (David Thewlis) a man with a middle class accent, an impressive office and a big moustache. He acts as the frontman, while the Krays lurk behind are the muscle. They sit in the background looking threatening, rarely having to raise a finger. Soon enough they’re taking over nightclubs, moving banknotes on the black market, and even doing jobs for Meyer Lansky the US mafia kingpin (who founded Murder Inc.) And the money is rolling in.

Things seem to be going great, until Reggie spends some time in jail and Ronnie takes charge. Uh oh. LegendTheir businesses start to unravel at a rapid pace. What will happen to them now? Can the Kray twins handle a rival gang, the police, the mafia, the House of Lords, their love interests… and their own sibling rivalry?

I like this movie – the music, the look, the acting are all great. I did have some trouble understanding Ronnies lines (is it his cockney accent or his mumbling voice?) And having Tom Hardy play both the twins is pretty impressive. It really feels like two separate people. They even get in fist fights and end up wrestling on the floor.

But the central love story — Frances and Reg — just didn’t grab me. It didn’t seem quite right, ‘t works well as an action-filled historical biopic, but fizzles as a romance.

oYXOpY_ismileback_03-HIGHRES_o3_8706150_1438094935I Smile Back
Dir: Adam Salky

Laney (Sarah Silverman) lives in a nice middle-class home with her husband Bruce (Josh Charles) and her two kids, Eli and Janey. Bruce is an insurance agent who loves playing basketball with their kids. Laney loves them too but finds even dropping them off at school an almost unbearable chore. So she fills her days popping pills, snorting coke, and getting drunk. Or sleeping with random guys she meets in dive bars. She even has an ongoing fling with her best friend’s husband (and her husband’s best friend), who keeps her supplied with meds. She takes lithium to handle her mood swings, leaving her like a depressed zombie when she takes it. But when she skips her meds she goes wild – irresponsible, extreme, always searching for new sexual adventures. She finds herself waking up in strange motel rooms hungover from extreme drunken excess.

That she can handle. It’s her role as the good stay-at-home mom – and the guilt that comes with it – is almost I Smile Backunbearable. She ends up telling off mothers teachers or anyone who rubs her the wrong way.

Bruce’s patience is almost limitless, but she repays this by getting even more difficult to handle. (Does he suspect she’s sleeping with strangers?) And then there are her kids – some of her worries rub off on Eli who has horrible dreams, turning to weird, nervous habits to keep calm. She realizes she’s hit rock bottom when she goes to check on her sleeping kids and ends up masturbating with his teddy bear. Oh Lanie — get a grip! She checks into rehab to try to get back to normal, But lurking in the background is something from her past involving her dad who she hasn’t spoken to in decades.

I Smile BackCan Lanie handle her spiraling decline? Will rehab save her? Can she learn to see her kids again and just smile back? Or will she end up homeless, drunk and beaten up in a dark alley?

I Smile Back is a hard movie to handle. It’s not fun – it’s disturbing, shocking and depressing. But Sarah Silverman pulls it off. We’re used to seeing her as a comic, pushing the limits with her shocking potty humour and dirty jokes. But what’s really chilling is seeing her doing the things she jokes about but for real, not for laughs. Worth seeing.

Legend, Al Purdy was Here, and I Smiled Back all open today in Toronto: check your local listings. 

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

 

 

 

March 30, 2012. Battles Royal. Movies Reviewed: The Hunger Games, The Raid: Redemption, Gerhard Richter — Painting

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

I’m back again, to review three movies. With the recent re-release of the Japanese horror/thriller Battle Royale (Dir: Fukasaku Kinji, 1990) I thought it was appropriate to look at great battles and fights to the death. One’s about a girl who must fight 23 other teenagers on national television; one’s about a cop who has to kill literally hundreds of bad guys in an apartment complex; and one’s about a master artist who has to fight a constant battle with his adversaries: the paintings he creates.

Hunger Games
Dir: Gary Ross

It’s sometime in the future in America, with the country split into 12 districts, divided by what they produce. They are all poor, while the people in the capital are rich, living their lives obsessed with grotesque, Louis XVI clothing and wigs. Catniss (Jenifer Lawrence) is extremely poor since her father died in a mining disaster, so she hunts for food (illegally) with her best friend Gale and a bow and arrow. Without the squirrels she catches she, her mother and her sister Prim would starve to death.

This country is called Panem and it operates on the bread and circuses principle (keep the people fed on bread — panem — and entertained). So while the people are just eking by, the President forces two “tributes” — a teenaged boy and girl from each district — to fight to the death each year in a televised reality show. Sort of like the Olympics, except no one wants to be chosen by the random “reaping”. They are dressed, trained, and sent away to a forest with cameras hidden in every knothole and behind each shrub.

Catniss and Peeta – the baker’s son — are the ones sent to the games. Which one of the twenty-four will survive?
I read all three of the books, and the movie’s is a fairly accurate dramatization of the original.
But… where’s the hunger? It’s the Hunger Games! They’re stuck in this manufactured, forest “arena” with nothing to eat or drink except what they can find (or that’s sent to them using tiny parachutes, paid for by donations from the fans.) But Jennifer Lawrence looks like a big, healthy milk-fed athlete, not the vulnerable wiry but headstrong little girl I was expecting. When she gets sent off to the capital she barely glances at the fancy array food. And she never really eats. Petta (Josh Hutcherson), on the other hand, is much more believable in his role.
The movie follows the action in the arena, but constantly cuts away to unnecessary behind-the –scenes action in a control room, where the scientists plan their next danger. This takes away a lot of the mystery and excitement: you know what’s going to happen before the characters do. Still, the suspense and action – save for the completely unwatchable shaky camera fights – is exciting, and the story is good. Who will survive? Can people behave morally in an immoral world? And can a boy and a girl find love in a battle to the death? My heart didn’t pound much, but it was still a fun movie to watch.
The Raid: Redemption
Dir: Gareth Evans
A young Jakarta policeman named Rama (Iko Uwais), is sent into an apartment building as part of a SWAT team, to arrest a gangster. But he soon discovers it’s a set-up! Almost every apartment in the high-rise is filled with the gangster’s minions who spring forward — armed with cleavers, knives, axes and swords – in a fight to the death against the cops.
Rama is an expert in the Indonesian martial art silat, which involves throwing, hitting, and cutting with various bladed weapons (kids… don’t try this at home!) So its up to him to fight them off, one by one, so he can reach the penthouse suite and arrest the chief bad guy. But he has to deal with corrupt cops in his own team, and a mysterious connection he has to a player on the other side.
This non-stop, extremely violent action assault movie is intense, to say the least, with incredible, choreographed fight scenes involving dozens of fighters at a time, all of them throwing themselves, like crazed, screeching zombies, at the one martial arts hero. It’s a great, gorey action movie, not like one I’ve ever scene before.
Gerhard Richter — Painting
Dir: Corrina Belz
Gerhard Richter was trained as an artist in socialist realism in East Germany but he crossed over to the west in the early sixties. Since then, his work — which spans everything from plain grey fields and coloured, geometric designs, to photorealism, and abstract expressionism – has grown in reputation to the point where, today, he’s generally considered one of the most important living painters.
But, he says, the process of painting is a private thing, not meant to be seen by the public. Painters are cowards, they do their art in private, then reveal it in public.
Paintings, he says (quoting Adorno), are mortal enemies: every work is the mortal enemy of the other.  Each painting is an assertion that tolerates no company.
So it’s a rare, rare thing for him to allow a camera to reveal him at work, almost as if we’re seeing the king without his clothes on.  But what a king!
It’s just amazing seeing him at work in a completely white – floors, walls, ceiling – studio, climbing up a ladder, and painting huge brushstrokes on these 10 foot wide canvases. Bright fields of yellow, a streak of red, a blue patch. And you think, yeah that’s not bad, nice balance… then he looks at it, and says it’s not good… ist schlecht!  Then a few days later he puts some paint on a piece of glass as tall as the painting, and then slowly, deliberately squeegees  a layer of paint slowly across the painting breaking up the colour into crackly, or smooth, or patchy areas. It’s a new painting, now, and stays like that one for another few days until he decides to change it, junk it, or keep it as is. It’s like the movie shows paintings that don’t exist anymore in galleries, they’re just the stages of the painting now on a wall somewhere.
And just in case someone wants to say “my 12 year old daughter could paint better than that!” the movie also shows a previous series of his paintings, these photorealism taken from old black and white snapshots.
This movie’s not for everyone, that’s for sure. It’s in German with subtitles, and is mainly footage of Richter painting and talking about it. It’s not an “art movie”, it’s a movie about the creation of art and art itself. It’s not an exciting film, but I liked it: it’s a terrific introduction to a great painter, and an intellectually fascinating and visually stunning representation of his art.
The Hunger Games and The Raid: Redemption are playing now, and Gerhard Richter – Painting opens today. Also on this weekend, you can catch the enjoyable Ma Part du Gateau (My Piece of the Pie) showing at the Cinefranco festival in Toronto.  And a very good documentary, The Guantanamo Trap, is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site CulturalMining.com. 

September 23, 2011. TIFF aftermath. Films reviewed: Where Do We Go Now?, Drive, Limelight

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for culturalmining.com and
CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult,
foreign, festival, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies
with good taste, and movies that taste good, and what the difference
is.

With the closing of this year’s TIFF — with all of its orgiastic
excess of filmic stimulation, eye candy, and brain prods — you may be
suffering from withdrawal. But have no fear — there’s no need to go
cold turkey, because Toronto’s Fall festival season is positively
brimming with good smaller film festival to keep your addiction alive.

Coming soon are: Toronto After Dark, the Toronto Palestinian Film
Festival, Planet in Focus, the Real Asian Film Festival, and the
European Union Film Festival, among others. And TIFF itself continues
on all year, showing their programmed films at the Lightbox. So if you
missed a good movie at TIFF, even if it doesn’t get a wide release,
you may be able to catch it later on in the year.

But first, the awards. Phillipe Felardeau won the Toronto Best
Canadian feature prize for Monsieur Falardeau — and it’s already gone
on to become Canada’s entry for a Best Foreign language Film Oscar.

The People’s Choice Award at TIFF is often used as an indicator of
who’s going to win a Golden Globe and later get nominated for an
Oscar. Past years’ winners include Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s
Speech, and Precious. It’s voted on not by a panel of judges, but by
the moviegoers at the festival themselves. What this also means is
that sometimes a completely unknown movie — one with no “buzz” at all– can come out of left field, and take this award.

This year’s surprise is a film out of Lebanon, called:

Where Do Go Now? (Et maintenant, on va où?)
Dir: Nadine Labaki

The movie takes place in a small village, a town divided equally
between Muslims and Catholics. It’s surrounded by landmines, and all
too often, people get shot or blown up. Up at the top of a hill is the
graveyard where women dressed in black from both sides meet to bury
the dead. The town itself is peaceful, and after some brave kids
weather the landmines to set up an antenna, the mayor declares it’s TV
night in the town square, and everyone gathers to watch the blurry
movie.

The danger, though, is that the fragile peace will break, and the men
will start killing each other again in reprisals. So the women of the
village formulate a plan: anytime news about violence reaches the
village, they will hide it or distract the men. Gradually — with the
cooperation of the Priest and the Imam — their plans escalate and
their schemes get more and more elaborate. They stage religious
miracles, and even secretly bring in Eastern European strippers –
anything to hide the fact that someone in the village was killed in an
incident.

Will it work? Can they create an island of piece in turbulent Lebanon?
And will their final, shocking surprise serve to jolt the men away
from their never-ending violence?

I thought the movie had an extremely slow beginning, with a handmade
feel to it – sort of like an even-lower-budget Big Fat Greek Wedding
meets Little Mosque on the Prairie. It’s a comedy, but a lot of the
jokes fell flat. And it’s a musical, but some of the songs just don’t
translate well. The ensemble plot, with dozens of characters, leaves
you confused until you can figure out who everyone is.

That said, in the second half, when the pace picks up and the story
gets interesting, it becomes good. And the ending is just great –
clever and imaginative, and leaves you with a much better feeling
than you came with. Nadine Labaki – who is also a member of the cast – is
the first female director to win the TIFF People’s Choice award, and
it’s nice to see her touching story about an important topic given a
boost. I’m curious as to where the movie will go now.

Another movie that opened at the festival is

Drive
Dir: Nicolas Winding Refn

Ryan Gosling plays this guy in a satin jacket who drives cars around,
plain-looking cars but with souped-up engines that can outgun any
police car. He can tumble a car, flip it over on a highway, and
still remain absolutely calm, a Japanese toothpick still in his mouth. He’s the
strong silent type, good at heart. By day, he works in a garage, and
is sent out by his shady boss Shannon (Brian Cranston) to do movie
stunts. (This is LA, so, of course,  it’s always about the movies.) And by night, he
serves as the driver for bank heists and robberies.

He falls into almost a family relationship with pretty waitress Irene
(Carey Mulligan), and her son, little Benicio, and takes them for
drives around the city. But when her husband, Standard, is released
from prison, his good life starts to fall apart and the violence
builds. He becomes embroiled in a scheme involving sinister gangsters
Rose and Nino (Albert Brooks and the great, neanderthalic Ron
Perlman). He ends up holding a dufflebag with a million dollars in
stolen money. What should he do with it? Will he settle down as a
champion stock car racer? Or will violence rule the day?

This is a fantastic — though sometimes horrifically violent, and
weird – movie. (Every once in a while you think – what is this? Is
this for real? Who are they trying to kid? You lose the connection for a moment, but then you slip right back into it.) It looks like a rejig of an 80’s movie like Thief,
with the driving bass (bubbadubba dubbadubba bubbadubba…) background music, and the
night scenes with glowing lights all around. The movie titles are
scribbled, Andy Warhol-style, in hot pink, and strange Eurodisco
dominates the soundtrack. The violence is almost comical, though
bloody. This is NOT your usual action thriller, but a clever, Danish
take on LA film noir. Great movie.

Next, another look at the louche underculture, this time in Manhattan
in the 90’s. A documentary

Limelight
Dir: Billy Corben

Peter Gatien, a Canadian nightclub promoter who lost an eye in a
hockey game as a kid, was known for his black eye patch, his canny
business practices, and how he had his hand on the pulse of all of New
York clublife in the 80’s and 90’s. He was a behind-the-scenes guy,
but he brought in demimonde celebs – the club kids – to bring in the
cool crowd. He opened famous places like Tunnel, the Palladium and
Limelight (not so affectionately known as slimelight by clubgoers) a
club opened inside of a church.

So everything’s going good, until Giuliani, the law and order supreme,
was elected mayor of New York. But when the drug of choice changed

from coke to MDMA to crack cocaine, so did the mood in the clubs, from

selfish and driven, to touchy-feelie, to insane. Giuliani vowed to
“clean up” the city. And he despised nightclubs, sex and dancing as
musch as drugs. Used to be the people in the burrows and New Jersey
would travel into the city on weekends for fun. By the end of his
reign, the term bridge and tunnel crowd seemed to be a better
description of the people in Manhattan who were so desperate they’d
migrate out of the city just to dance all night.

Well, Giuliani chose Peter Gatien, as his nemesis, and launched a
full-scale attack, an elaborate scheme to paint him as a drug dealer
and criminal. This movie traces, in minute detail, all the players
involved in his trial – the rats, the dealers, the feds, the femme
fatale, and the legendary club kids like murderer Michael Alig.

It’s an interesting movie, about a fascinating topic, with a great
segment giving a history of the evolution of music, nightclubs, and
drugs, worth seeing, but it’s just too long. It gets bogged down with way too many
talking heads against acid-green lighting.

Drive is playing now, Limelife opens today, and  Where Do We Go Now?
won the 2011 People’s Choice Award at TIFF.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web
site, Cultural Mining . com.


Aug 19, 2011. History Rewrites Itself. Movies Reviewed: Sarah’s Key, United Red Army, Caterpillar, The Whistleblower

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, and movies that taste good, and what the difference is.

Lot’s of people say: if you don’t watch out, history will repeat itself. Maybe so. But I’m more interested in the way history rewrites itself.

What once was glorious is later seen as shameful. What once was righteous is later cruel and unfair. What once was dubbed a “Mission Accomplished” is now seen as the start of an illegal war. And then there are all the people and events that seem to disappear entirely only to be brought back decades later. Faces of purged politicians used to appear or disappear in official photos in the days long before photoshop.

So today I’m looking at four movies set in the past where the filmmakers or characters present history in a new way.

Sarah’s Key

Dir: Gilles Paquet-Brenner

Julia (Kirsten Scott-Thomas) is a magazine journalist in Paris who is moving into her husband’s apartment in Le Marais, even while she’s researching the notorious Vel d’Hiv incident. This was when the French police rounded up most of the Jewish immigrants in Paris and locked them into a bicycle racing stadium for a few days before shipping them off to their death in German concentration camps.

So, after a bit of research, Julia is disturbed to discover that her husband’s family had first moved into the apartment she’s about to live in on that very day in the 1940’s. And then she finds out that two kids, a little girl Sarah and her brother, who used to live in that house are nowhere in any historical records. What happened to them? The movie jumps back and forth between Julia’s quest, nowadays, to discover the truth; and little blonde Sarah (Mélusine Mayance)’s attempt to escape back home to rescue her little brother whom she had locked in a hidden closet during the roundup.

The kids’ story — and what became of them — provides the suspense in this movie, as Julia gradually pieces the puzzle back together and reveals the hidden truth of Sarah’s extraordinary wartime adventure.

Are Sarah and her brother still alive? If they are, where are they now? And what was Julia’s in-laws’ actual role in all this?

This is a French movie, so the English dialogue sounds a bit stilted. The dramatic, historical flashbacks are more interesting than the present-day parts, but the sum-total still leaves you with a generally good, exciting drama.

Caterpillar

Dir: Kôji Wakamatsu

Lieutenant Kurokawa (Keigo Kasuya), a brutal husband and a vicious soldier in the Japanese Imperial Army in WWII, is badly burned while sexually assaulting a woman in her home on the Chinese battlefront. He barely survives the fire, and his armless, legless torso with just a badly burned head is sent home to his village. He’s declared a hero and a War God, and sits silently in his military uniform like like an evil anti-Buddha. He can barely speak, and his wife Shigeko (Shinobu Terajima) is horrified. She almost tries to murder him, but stops when he begins to speak.

At first Shigeko stays subservient and dutiful toward her cruel husband. She is shamed by her neighbours into keeping up appearances.

He sleeps, he eats, he sleeps, he eats, and glories in the medals he won, and the framed newspaper clipping extolling his exploits for the sake of the Japanese Empire. And by grunting, and pulling at her skirt with his teeth he tells her whenever he wants sex. She grudgingly, patriotically goes along with him.

But gradually power shifts: without hands he can no longer beat her to keep her compliant. without a voice, he can’t shut out her opinions. And given his newly submissive position in sex he begins to identify with the women he had raped in China.

This is a brilliantly acted, absurdist black comedy about the collapse of Imperial Japan. It contrasts the tragedy and cruelty of war with the inane barrage of recorded martial marches, brass bands and morality lessons, and slogans repeated by everyone on the homefront. Radio propaganda broadcasts predict imminent victory even as the Americans are firebombing Tokyo. An extremely strange but fascinating movie, Caterpillar shows the disconnect between the official history of the period and the lives of ordinary Japanese people.

In another movie…

United Red Army

Dir: Kôji Wakamatsu

Iooks at an almost forgotten period of radical upheaval from the far left in a more recent period of Japanese history – the 60’s and 70’s. Supposedly peaceful Japan was turned on its head with authority challenged by protests, sit-ins and violent occupations at hundreds of universities.

This long and devastating docudrama, looks at two breakaway radical revolutionary groups in Eastern and Western Japan that temporary joined together into the United Red Army under its two charismatic leaders, a man and a woman. In an isolated cabin in the Japan alps they rethink their policies and insist that all members take part in self-criticism.

(These are the same groups that, along with the German Red Army Faction, were hijacking planes around the world in the 1970’s.)

This movie is divided into three sections. Part one is a cold, documentary-style look at the upheavals at that time. Part two, is an epic, human drama of what becomes of the idealistic revolutionaries when they are hidden in their mountain cabin, and how their grandiose ideas of Cultural Revolution gradually degenerate into an agonizing, Lord of the Flies-style struggle, leading to violence, bullying, torture and death. The third part follows some of these members who later take over a country inn in an extended showdown with the Japanese police.

United Red Army is a devastating, relentless look at the members of the radical Japan Red Army and their ideological implosion behind the scenes.

In another rewriting of history,

The Whistleblower

Dir: Larysa Kondracki

…is a dramatic thriller set during the UN peacekeeping period following the Yugoslavian civil war in the 90’s. Kathryn (Rachel Weiss) a divorced, small-town American cop, takes a position in Sarajevo so she can earn some money and pay for shared custody of her daughter. She is quickly promoted (by a kindly Vanessa Redgrave) to a special unit that advocates and investigates crimes against women.

Meanwhile, Raya (Roxanne Condurache) is a young Ukrainian from Kiev who also takes on a foreign job in Bulgaria for a few months. She ends up in Sarajevo as well. But Kathryn is shocked to learn that Raya (and many women like her) are trafficked across borders, and are living in horrific conditions in a brothel, as virtual sex slaves. And the plot thickens when she discovers that some of the peace-keeping soldiers, corrupt local police, “Fancy diplomats” and UN bureaucrats are also involved, not only as johns, but possibly as pimps and organized criminals. So it’s up to Kathryn and her few allies to try to blow the whistle on this scandal. But who can she trust?

I wanted to like this movie – which seemed like an extended version of Law and Order SVU – but it was a pretty bad, no, an awful movie. I am not giving away any spoilers here – the whole movie basically tells you what’s going to happen in the first couple minutes. It’s called The Whistleblower, so no surprises here. It’s mainly about helpless weeping women saying “save us”, evil Bosnian Serbs saying “No!”, and smarmy UN personel who just don’t care. Kathryn has to do it all herself. It’s much too simple and predictable a plot:

United Nations = Bad

Yugoslavians = Bad

Peacekeepers = Bad

Women = Victims

US small-town cop = Good

The Whistleblower is now playing, check your local listings, Sarah’s Key opens today in Toronto; and United Red Army and Caterpillar also open today, exclusively at the Projection Booth, a new theatre in Eastern Toronto. Also opening is Spy Kids in 4-D with smell-o-vision: warning: most of the spots on the card smell like SweetTarts, just don’t sniff odour number 6!

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site, Cultural Mining.com.

June 24, 2011. Women at Centre Stage, Men at the Fringe. Movies Reviewed: J.X. Williams Cabinet of Curiosities, William S Burroughs A Man Within, Bridesmaids, Bad Teacher

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, and movies that taste good, and what the difference is.

Last week was NXNE Toronto’s huge indie music and movies festival. And while there were a lot of music videos and films about bands going on tour, (bands practicing their instruments, bands getting drunk, bands feeling sad…), there were also a few good ones about people in the underground, on the fringe, at the far reaches.

At the same time as the festival, there are also loads of mainstream movies at the local googleplex. I’ve talked about this before, but women are disappearing from movies. There are lots of movies with only one female character, for every ten or twenty male characters. “The woman” is now a token character, along with the black guy, the fat guy, the grandpa, the guy next door…

So, today I’m going to deal with both those themes: two movies about men on the fringe, and two movies with women, front and centre.

William S Burroughs: A Man Within
Dir: Yony Leyser

William S Burroughs was the prep-school and Harvard heir to the Burroughs adding-machine fortune in St Louis. He drifted to New York and fell in with the so-called beatniks, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. After he accidentally killed his wife, Joan, in Mexico when he tried to shoot a tumbler of gin off her head and missed, he fell into a depression and began to write it all down.

His style really took off when he fell in with artist and visionary Brion Gysin, the inventor of the Dream Machine (a psychedelic light tube that spins on a turntable and is viewed with the eyes closed). Burroughs began using Gysin’s cut-up technique, snipping up his manuscripts and realigning strips to a give a broken feel to his mind-bending novels.

At the same time, his personal life consisted of cold, unemotional sexual relationships with much younger men – who were poets, writers, artists. His books were banned, but Burroughs was eventually embraced, in succession by the beat movement of the 50’s, the 60’s counterculture, 70’s punk, and gay liberation movements in the 80’s – none of which he was actually a part of. So his influence was huge and deep for more than half a century.

This excellent biography is made up of interviews with some of the people he knew or influenced — his ex-lovers, academics, musicians like Patti Smith and Genesis P. Orridge, poets like Amiri Baraka and John Giorno, artists – Andy Warhol, and directors like David Cronenberg and Gus Van Sant. And also, people who knew him like his arms dealer – he had a lifetime obsession with guns and slept with one under his pillow, even during sex, a reptile trainer, his fellow druggies, and his next door neighbours. The new interviews and old footage are combined in sections with cool wire animation. This documentary is well worth seeing.

JX WIliams’ Cabinet of Curiosities

Archivist and Curator: Noel Lawrence

Another underground artist from the same era deserves attention too, even though he is so underground and obscure that virtually no one in the world has ever actually heard of him.

But his name is J.X. Williams, and his Cabinet of Curiosities – clips from the films he made in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s – have been collected and curated by L.A. devotee Noel Lawrence, who brought some of his collection to NXNE.

Williams was no ordinary underground figure, and his films are not ordinary movies. Lawrence, both in the film clips and in the unusual extended panel discussion at NXNE, explained part of this man’s career. He was the son of a communist, and managed to get blacklisted by the House un-American Activities Committee at the age of 17. Somehow, he became involved with not just the communists, but also the mob, the FBI and the Kennedy assassination. He earned his living as a base pornographer – some of his movies showed only in Copehagen, and even there, only once — and was forced to flee to Switzerland to avoid arrest (perhaps for copyright infringement)?

The movies themselves are, at times, baffling and annoying, but also a pleasure to behold. Basically they consist of parodies of classic and film noir titles, with Mad Magazine-style names: for example, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows with Williams becomes the 400 Blowjobs. Other films in his porn/occult matrix include Hollywood Playgirls, Hades Highway, and ESP Orgy. So split-screen film clips of Steve McQueen meets Clint Eastwood in an alternate universe, combined with unexplained stock footage of flashing coloured traffic lights, wicked stop-motion animation, crackly peepshow credits, and hardcore B&W silent porn.

What can I say? Keep an eye out for Noel Lawrence’s amazingly detailed lectures (photog: Brad Clarke)  about this hitherto unknown, underground figure J.X Williams. www.jxarchive.org

From the obscurest of the obscure, to the mainstreamest of the mainstream are two movies which attempt the unthinkable – comedies starring women – and pull it off. Both of the movies have women in atypical roles (as underdogs, underachievers, and anti-heroes), with the successful, beautiful, rich and hard-working women as the “villains”. And the female stars both manage to do non-topless sex scenes.

Bridesmaids
Dir: Paul Feig

Annie and Lillian (played by Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph) are best friends who share everything including laughs. But when Lillian makes Annie her maid of honour or her upcoming wedding, she finds herself pitted against a new enemy – Whitney, a rich, preppy trophy-wife who is trying to steal away her best friend. Annie’s life unravels – she feels used by her douche-y sex partner, hates the jewelry store job she was forced to take once her cake business went bottoms-up, and lives with the roommates from hell. Meanwhile, her crazy fellow bridesmaids take up her time with a series of fiascos, with only a kind-hearted, Irish cop (Officer Rhodes, played by Chris O’ Dowd) shows some sympathy for her. Will she completely give up and be defeated by Whitney? Will she ever get back together with her best friend? And will she find true love?

This is a pretty funny comedy, with humour coming more from unusual characters than from cheap site-gags. A competitive speech-making scene was especially funny, as was Wiig feeling queazy. While the pace seemed slower than most comedies, and the gags – save for a puke and diarrhea scene – more mature, it works. I laughed a lot and it kept my interest. Some of the writing was weird, with dialogue not matching the rest of some characters’ lines – but in general it was a lot of fun, especially Mellissa McCarthy, the woman from the TV show Mike and Molly.

This is a comedy, not a chick flick, but it also avoids most of the gratuitous nudity, dick jokes and gross-outs, and allows the very funny cast of seven funny women to shine.

Bad Teacher
Dir: Jake Kasdan

Elizabeth (Cameron Diaz) is forced to work as a teacher at John Adams Jr High (“we call it JAMS!”) when her rich fiancé dumps her before the wedding. She’s a gold digging pothead, and a misanthropic teacher who hates kids. She soon finds herself in a competition with the hardworking and perky teacher Amy Squirrel (hilariously played by Lucy Punch) over the rich, airhead teacher Scott (Justin Timbelake).
She decides to get a breast-implant operation to win him over and marry into his fortune – but this will be expensive. Can she get her previously neglected class to score high on the state tests and get her the bonus she needs? And will she ever date the gym teacher (Jason Segel) who likes her?

Well, I thought it was pretty funny. Not great, mind you, but funny enough, and much funnier than the gags they show in the trailer. Filthy language, but no serious violence, disgustingness, or dick, puke or bowel jokes. Both Bridesmaids and Bad Teacher are directed by people from that great TV show Freaks and Geeks, maybe that’s why it’s a bit better than most. This is not a clever movie by any stretch, but it has its larfs, and Cameron Diaz is great as the anti-heroine.

William S Burroughs: The Man Within, and J.X. Williams’ Cabinet of Curiosities screened at NXNE last week, Bridesmaids is now playing, and Bad Teacher opens today: check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site, Cultural Mining .com.

War and Filmic Vocabulary. Movies Reviewed: The Christening, Essential Killing. PLUS Cold Fish, Images Festival

It’s funny how current events can change our whole filmic vocabulary, adding new concepts and words to make images that would have made no sense a decade ago instantly recognizable on today’s movie screens.

Most people immediately think of technology — ipods, digital pics, texting, on-line dates — as the biggest recognizable changes. But,  unfortunately, some of the biggest stretches of our visual vocabulary is in images of war, violence and death.

During one of the darkest periods in American history, that started less than a decade ago following 9/11 (and doesn’t seem to have finished), the Bush/Cheney administration started a “war on terror”. Countries were invaded, bombs dropped, and a huge number of suspects were arrested, jailed, tortured or killed. In general, these horrific events were kept away from American soil, but done by Americans under direct orders from the government. They also introduced new words and concepts into our vocabulary, that previously might only have been used in horror novels.

Clandestine prison camps, known as “Black Sites”, were set up across Europe and the Middle East. Undocumented suspects, who were sent there to be tortured or interrogated, were called “Ghost Detainees”. One of the torture techniques, in which detainees were made to repeatedly suffer the sensation of death by drowning, is now widely known as “Water Boarding”. And the black hoods put over prisoners (used in Abu Ghraib) are also instantly recognizable.

Canada has also morphed into a nation at war, without consciously deciding to make the change from peacekeeper to bomber. We’re fighting on two fronts now. So today I’m looking at some new movies from Poland (a country that has certainly seen more than its fair share of wars) that examine how war and violence has infiltrated daily lives.

The Christening
Dir: Marcin Wrona

The movie opens with a soldier, face covered, being chased down by cops who beat him up, and arrest him for unknown reasons. Then flash forward – Janek (Tomasz Schuchardt) is visiting his army buddy and best fishing friend, Michal (Wojciech Zielinski). They’re together again to guzzle vodka and do Maori war chants. When they go fishing, they use their old military experience – throwing grenades into a lake — to blow up as many fish as they can. Nice guys!

Everything seems great for Michal: he has a good job, a beautiful wife, Magda (Natalia Rybicka) – he says they met in a hospital when she stitched up a cut on his brow — and a little baby. He’s gone straight: he even offers to help his friend out. But Janek, he’s happy just getting drunk, carousing with his buddies. He doesn’t want an office job – he makes good cash stealing cars and stripping them down for parts.

But there’s a problem — Michal seems to be hiding something. Someone’s putting pressure on him, and he’s showing up with a black eye, or beaten-up body. Janek doesn’t understand what’s happening — if there’s a problem he should tell him – he’ll just beat the guy up. Janek still likes a good brawl. Meanwhile, Magda is sure everything is Janek’s fault. He’s dragging her husband into the gutter. Maybe Michal owed something to his army buddies, but she doesn’t owe Janek anything. But her husband’s dark secret – one of betrayal and duplicity – makes Michal feel both guilty and trapped.

So he sets up a scheme to exit from his problems after the baby’s christening. He thinks he’s doomed there, but maybe his best friend can replace him in his home.

Will Janek stick by him? Who’s the criminal here? The cops or the thugs? Where does a person’s loyalty really lie? And how far will you let it go?

The Christening is an extremely – I’d say excessively — violent movie. I get the feeling the director was influenced by directors like Quentin Tarantino, but in all the wrong ways. Characters, like the gangsters’ boss, Fatman, who behaves like a sadistic killer, seem to be there just for titillation. So lots of horrible, gory, senseless, over-the-top fighting, but almost no humour (only melodrama) to lighten the mood.

Essential Killing
Dir: Jerzy Skolimowski

Mohamed (Vincent Gallo), a militant hiding out in the smooth caves of a lunar landscape (Afghanistan?), is startled to hear two American marines approaching in desert storm camouflage and beige burnooses. He pulls out his weapon and Boom! Ratatatatat! He ambushes the soldiers. Mohamed runs out into the sun to escape, but is taken down by helicopters and more special ops soldiers.

So now he’s taken away to some unidentified place (a black site) where he’s placed on his back, screamed at in English (he can’t hear after the explosions) and then waterboarded. Next, he’s off with other prisoners on some snowy forest road – looks like Canada – and there’s an accident. He gets out of the truck, grabs a gun and starts a long, painful, and violent trek trough the woods of rural Poland, pursued by US Special Ops and helicopters.

It becomes almost like a fairy tale or a picaresque novel, but with a violent streak running through it. He encounters a stream of characters — like a huge-breasted woman on a bike with a baby, a friendly black and white dog, some drunken wood cutters,  a deaf-mute woman who lives in a cottage in the forest who tends to his wounds, and a pale white, broken horse — as he tries to escape, survive, and get away. He climbs snow covered banks, slides off cliffs into rivers, hallucinates after eating poison berries, and conceals himself using the changing costumes he finds or steals on his journey.

Essential Killing was directed by Skolimowski, who was one of the dialogue writers on Polanski’s Knife in the Water, but this movie has almost lines at all. It’s not silent, but with both Mohammed and the US soldiers far from their own homes, they can’t understand each other. The locals around the Dark Site talk a bit but about nothing in particular. This is an aesthetically beautiful, though bloody, art movie – one of very few “action/art” films. I’m not a big fan of Vincent Gallo, but he is fantastic in this as a silent pilgrim, alternately Christ-like and psychotic.

This is an unexpectedly amazing movie — just be aware it’s not a conventional, Hollywood-style film.

And, just in case this isn’t enough violence for one weekend, the Japanese horror film Cold Fish also opens today. You can read my whole review but just let me say, it is the most hellaciously bloody, gory, horrifyingly abusrdist exploitation movie I’ve ever seen. And it left me physically shaking by the time I walked out of the theatre, after its orgyistic tsunami of sex, blood, serial killing and cannibalistic outrages that In a few days transform the life of a mild-mannered tropical fish salesman, to a victim and potential participant in this ultimate sex blood flic.

The Christening played last year’s TIFF, Essential Killing and Cold Fish are opening today, April 1, 2011 in Toronto. Check your local listings. And keep your eyes open for Toronto’s Images Festival, which is on right now. Toronto’s Images Festival — an exhibition of film and art, experimental and independent — is the largest one in North America to feature moving images and media art both on the big screen and in gallery installations.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM and CulturalMining.com.

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